Academic Writing

Media Freedom in Hungary, 1989 - 2017

With the fall of communism in 1989, the countries of East-Central Europe were faced with the complicated process of transitioning to democracy. In Hungary, a loosening of social control led to increased media independence in the final years of communism. However, maintaining this independence was difficult in addition to dealing with the other challenges of creating a democratic governmental system. Hungary struggled to figure out how to establish the institutions necessary for a free and independent media system in a post-communist world. This is especially important to tackle as media is responsible for information dissemination, government accountability, and opposition representation; all of these are necessary for a liberal democracy. I argue that though the media experienced periods of freedom, it was continually subject to manipulation by the instability of partisan politics. While the European Union (EU) accession process forced some relinquishing of media control by the government, there has been substantial democratic backsliding since the 2004 accession, culminating in the 2010 general election that returned Viktor Orban and the Fidesz party to power. In order to support my argument, this paper will proceed as follows. First, I discuss the use of media regulatory legislation as a tool of partisan manipulation in the media wars of the 1990s, leaving the media dependent on the governing party. Next, I discuss the coalition governments in the period of 1994 to 2004 that created a framework for an independent media in minimum compliance with the Copenhagen requirements for EU accession. Finally, I argue that once a member of the EU, Hungary began renewed party colonization of the media, contributing to a backslide towards illiberal democracy, particularly in the years since 2010.

In the absence of a communist dictatorship controlling all aspects of social and political life, the Hungarian government was faced with an enormous task of restructuring; thus, they relied on held-over Soviet media relationships, which contributed to the lack of media freedom in the years immediately following the 1989 fall of communism. Generally, political control over the media takes the form of financial and institutional dependence of the media on the government, particularly in the public media sphere. Under communist rule, Andrew Milton argues that this dependent relationship was so ingrained that it “was largely self-sustaining” and necessitated “concerted action to undo the old, well-entrenched relationship and create rules and procedures for a new one”. With the complexity of other political issues, media freedom legislation was less of a priority for the new Hungarian government, which led to the instability of media regulation in the media wars of the early 1990s. Most significantly, the new constitution required a legislated media appointment process, but as there was none created, “the 1974 decree that put the media under the control of the Council of Ministers” was applied. This flaw meant that the prime minister and the ruling government would have complete control over the media. What ensued was a two-year battle over media supervisory powers between Prime Minister József Antall and President Árpád Göncz that came to be known as the media wars.

The media wars in Hungary centered on the issue of regulatory authorities, especially in terms of appointment of board members and organization chairs. As in many of the East-Central European countries, national media regulatory authorities were common targets for attempted party influence, as they inherently enabled parties “to delegate their supporters into these institutions” through nominations and elections. The Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), part of the center-right coalition governing Hungary, made a pact with the primary opposition party, the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), concerning the supervision of state-owned Hungarian Radio (MR) and Hungarian Television (MTV). Established in 1990, this pact agreed that Prime Minister Antall (MDF) and President Göncz (SZDSZ) would jointly appoint the Director Generals of the state media institutions. However, in 1992, when Göncz refused Antall’s request to remove the heads of MR and MTV over a difference of political opinion, Antall found legislative workarounds to weaken the directors’ power. By manipulating budget law, Antall diverted state funding for the national radio and television to his personal office and used it to create another state institution, Duna TV. Despite its primarily apolitical content, the broadcast aims to provide Hungarian content for Hungarian nationals living outside of the country, channeling the nationalist ideology that Antall and the MDF promote. Eventually, the directors resigned, and MDF-aligned vice presidents took over, precipitating the dismissal of 129 anti-party staff members. Péter Bajomi-Lázár describes the phenomenon that begins here as party colonization of the media, which is “a strategy aimed at extracting from the media resources such as airtime, frequencies, positions and money, and channeling them to party loyalists in order to reward them for various services”. This colonization necessarily results in government interference in the media, as each party attempts to influence the media for their own gain. Such volatility was moderately diminished by the Radio and Telecommunications Act of 1996, which established a Board of Trustees—responsible for overseeing appointment of MR and MTV directors—composed of proportionally represented partisan nominees and an official media authority, the National Radio and Television Board (ORTT), responsible for frequency allocation and license fee revenue redistribution. Though the 1996 act stabilized the legislative uncertainty held over from the Soviet-era government, the supervisory boards were still intrinsically tied to the partisan composition, indicating important implications for the freedom of media in the years to come.

The 1994 election of Prime Minister Gyula Horn and the coalition government of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) and SZDSZ cemented a tradition of government manipulation of the media, as they too immediately replaced the heads of MR and MTV, firing nearly 200 journalists. Such interference in the staffing and direction of state media institutions became common between 1994 and 2004, during which Hungary saw a new and opposing coalition party at the head of government each election cycle. Unstable political control certainly influenced the actions of the majority parties, as their primary goal became to retain power instead of creating a framework for a media independent of government control. Essentially, every four years, the opposition regained power and “opted out of the commitment to their own rhetoric” of media freedom. The Horn coalition of 1994-1998 largely followed a policy of media non-interference, contributing to the passage of the 1996 Radio and Telecommunications Act. Furthermore, the Horn government established a non-partisan committee to finally write Hungary’s media legislation, with the goal “to depoliticize the appointment process by separating the nominees from particular political party support”. At face value, the committee’s goal seems to be a positive step towards the creation of a free and independent media in Hungary, but before such legislation could be implemented, rational actor theory takes over and party politicians cede to the more basic goal of reelection. Despite holding 72 percent of the parliamentary seats, unable to obtain enough enthusiastic support from the opposition, Horn “refused to force the committee’s draft through parliament” out of fear that he would appear to be a constitutional dictator and would lose popular support. Nevertheless, the socialist-liberal coalition fell in the 1998 elections that saw Prime Minister Viktor Orbán rise to power with his Fidesz party, in coalition with MDF and a right-wing workers’ party.

Orbán’s first term as prime minister saw the opening of EU accession processes for Hungary, which tempered his attempts at complete party colonization of the media. Just as after the 1994 election, Orbán orchestrated industrial employment shake-ups, but his most active media interference came in the manipulation of advertising revenue and state funding. Though the Fidesz government did not legislate the content of published material, they used financial pressure to reward pro-government publications and force those critical of the government out of business. For example, Fidesz most commonly “direct[ed] advertising revenue from the government and state-owned corporations to friendly newspapers”. Other non-legislative measures included limiting critical publications’ access to governmental officials and information necessary for stories, limiting the newspapers’ capability for accurate reporting. Despite formalized censorship ending with the fall of communism, delegitimizing opposition media and financially incentivizing pro-government stances creates a self-censorship effect that cannot be said to be part of a liberal democracy. Orbán and the Fidesz government were forced to resort to such proxy restriction measures due to the pressure of EU accession. The aquis communautaire that formed the basis of EU accession “required each candidate state to disentangle political influences from media regulations”, and with the incentives offered as part of EU membership, Orbán had no choice but to comply. However, note that the Orbán coalition, as well the Horn coalition that preceded him, was able to more effectively and completely capture the media for the party. Nina Rathbun suggests this is due to the absence of “divisions within their coalitions, furnishing both with the ability to undertake executive actions without significant contestation”. Once again, focus turns to the supervisory boards that offer an entry point for partisan manipulation, as Fidesz had complete control of these boards while the coalition opposition failed to agree on board member appointments.

Hungary returned to a socialist-liberal coalition government, now under Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy, as a result of the 2002 elections, but this government achieved the highest standards of freedom in pre-accession Hungary, precisely due to the EU accession requirements. As was true in Orbán’s government, the “conditional incentive of [EU] membership locked in democratic practices even when former illiberal parties subsequently returned to power”. Medgyessy took active steps to undo the financial and political maneuverings Orbán had instituted under his control. Notably, the Medgyessy government abolished the subscription fee for access to public service broadcasts, covering the cost from the central budget. Though not explicitly severing media dependence on the government, universal access to public media is an essential component of free and independent media in a liberal democracy. Other moves towards media freedom included ending party ownership of media institutions, but most importantly, Medgyessy’s government saw the passage of the 2003 Act C on Telecommunications, which succeeded in bringing Hungary’s media laws in line with the acquis, in advance of the 2004 accession. In addition to requiring political non-interference in the media, Chapter 10 of the acquis includes provisions for the insurance of a competitive media market, further influencing the lessened financial pressure applied by the Medgyessy government.

Overall, Hungary was proceeding on a steady path towards liberal democracy after the fall of communism. As demonstrated with the coalition governments from 1994-1998, Hungary “developed viable parties that alternated regularly around two main party blocs,… displaying one of the most institutionalized party systems in the region”. This alternation continued until 2010, when the election of a Fidesz supermajority returned Viktor Orbán to the prime minister’s office and introduced a period of democratic backsliding that continues today. The 2010 elections brought Fidesz a supermajority of seats in the parliament, which they leveraged to create a new Hungarian constitution, under amendments from the 1989 constitution that “allow for a two-thirds majority party to amend the constitution with a single vote”. While the amendments cover a wide scope of legislative issues, the amendments that affect the maintenance of a free and independent media are as follows:

-       Consolidation of public media institutions (MR, MTV, DTV and the Hungarian News Agency) in the Public Service Foundation;

-       Creation of National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH) to preside over four other supervisory bodies and manage the business of public media through licensing and regulation;

-       Creation of Media Council to manage the NMHH and regulate media content, singular Chair to be appointed directly by the prime minister.

The effect of the new media amendments alone is an institutional regulatory structure completely controlled by the governing party. Immediately, a censoring influence was observed, as 18 of 35 radio frequencies distributed—under the jurisdiction of the NMHH—were to pro-government stations, and none of the 35 included a renewal of independent radio station Klubrádió’s license. The disappearance of Klubrádió from the airwaves caused particular outcry, as they were seen as “the last of the opposition voices on the air”.

Beyond the formal legislative control of the media, Orbán also revived manipulative strategies from his first term as prime minister. The worldwide economic crisis in 2008 was especially devastating to East-Central European governments, not least of all Hungary; thus, “media outlets became increasingly reliant upon political funding once again”. Orbán took advantage of this fact by increasing operating costs for media institutions—doubling licensing fees, passing a media tax, and once again funneling advertising revenue to pro-government news sources. Furthermore, Orbán has leveraged the Hungarian News Agency (MTI) to provide free content to public media broadcasters, edging out competitors and limiting free content access to whatever is prescribed and regulated by the state. Due to the previously stated increased cost of operation, smaller, independent media organizations are increasingly likely to rely on the often inaccurate content provided by MTI. This along with a desire to capture government subsidies leads to overwhelming self-censorship of print and broadcast media. Not only is the public media content often inaccurate, but the coverage is relatively nonsubstantive, especially as Orbán scripts his interactions with journalists. In addition to simply not fulfilling the qualities of a free and independent media as part of a liberal democracy, such media control may have negative effects for future democratic development, as “access to more substantive media stories is positively linked to issue consistency… and to levels of political engagement”.

The self-censorship that has occurred since the implementation of the 2010 constitution caused the primary concern in EU evaluations of Hungary’s democracy, but greater concern over other illiberal amendments distracted the Council. Just as with Hungary’s distraction from media law in the initial government restructuring in the post-communist years, the EU imposed the least strict reprimands on Hungary’s new media laws in comparison to their reaction on other illiberal policies instituted by Hungary’s new constitution. Though the EU chose not to invoke Article 7—the strongest tactic that would institute sanctions and monitoring and withdraw Hungary’s voting rights—they did invoke infringement procedure against some of Hungary’s undemocratic practices, though not on the issue of media freedom. Essentially, the EU attempted to rely on social pressure to get Orbán to change the media law, but Orbán had wide domestic support, largely because of his Euroskepticism, and as a seasoned politician, he was less susceptible to social pressure. Consequently, the EU’s tactic of social pressure to address the lack of media freedom in Hungary was unsuccessful, despite the EU’s previous shaping ability prior to accession, demonstrating how varying material leverage changes the EU’s ability to force compliance in addition to the distinct lack of incentivization after accession.

Hungary’s path towards liberal democracy following the fall of communism in 1989 encouraged optimism in scholars of the time, but the country was—and is still—plagued by issues of media freedom. Though the public media institutions have never been completely removed from government involvement, EU accession criteria forced an institutionalized freedom that lasted from 2003 until 2010. Fidesz’s party colonization of the media under Viktor Orbán shows recycling of media capture techniques from the immediate post-communist years, foreshadowing an increasingly illiberal Hungary if the EU does not institute stronger sanctions. Party control of the media blurs the transparency of the government and stifles other essential participatory functions of a liberal democracy. With Fidesz still in power today and illiberal policies gaining footholds across Europe on the basis of right-wing Euroskepticism, the future of the post-communist democracies of East-Central Europe seems tenuous, but worth further and continued examination.

poli sciSarah Burk